Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

Fresh & New(er) header image 2 update as a podcast

September 10th, 2007 by Seb Chan

I’ve just finished a presentation to art museum folk at the Sites of Communication 3 conference at the National Gallery of Victoria, and true to form there was quite a bit of interest in social tagging. There seems to now be widespread awareness of the problem of the ‘semantic gap’ between the language of art museums audiences (especially as they are being seen to be diversifying) and that of art curators and researchers. And there is increasing interest addressing this problem.

Thus when museum people ask about collection tagging projects other than our own, I send them off to the project website. Invariably they come back, having dipped their toes into some of the research material, with more questions. Jennifer Trant has produced a rather excellent podcast summary of the project to date and some of the preliminary results emerging from it. The podcast is a good example of making what is otherwise a time consuming and text heavy task an easy-to-digest and informative 12 minute presentation – complete with a few slides. (It uses the M4A format so you will need Quicktime or iTunes.) is doing some excellent and very considered research that will re-assure many tag skeptics and no doubt lead to more and better tagging implementations down the track. Whether the Steve results will be able to be applied directly to collections outside of visual art – social history and natural history collection especially – remains to be seen.

Tags: 2 Comments

  • thanks seb, for the rather nice write-up.

    you’ve hit on one of the real problems of conducting research in the museum context — the task of making what seems ‘academic’ relevant and useful. it’s hard, in our project-driven culture, to step back from what we think we ‘know’ to see if there is any evidence for our prejudices. Lorcan Dempsey blogged about this not long ago, pleading for an ‘evidence base’ in library catalogue development.

    we need research in order to do what we do better, but we can’t have research for research’s sake in a sector devoted to public service.

    i’ve been thinking about this in the context of how we structure and report both the research agenda and its results. obviously, there’s a need to distill the research rationale into something that’s easily digestible to the professional. but doing that without dumbing down is a challenge. make it seem to easy and the need for the research gets lost; make it too applied, and the product takes the place of the questions and the research environment starts to look like an answer in itself.

    as to broader applicability — i’m hopeful that there will be a relevance beyond ‘art’ in the steve results. while the vocabulary analysis might be focused on art language, the questions of user motivation, and tagging environment are shared beyond ‘art’; and the tools and methods are content-agnostic.


  • Seb Chan


    hi jennifer

    i sometimes wish we had the chance to step back a little from our own tagging project and spend more time analysing the data we’re collecting.

    i think that the ‘need’ for tagging is considerably greater with art collections than it is with collections like ours – and things like our bulk tagger have begun to show the difference between the tags entered by people in the wider community and those in the museum tech community. the shared sense of ‘what tagging is for’ is much stronger amongst those in the museum community than outside it – we are still dealing with general public users who use the tagging on the main site to ask us (and other users) about the value or price of objects. this seems similar to the way in which users circumvented the controls in the V&A’s tile game to communicate with each other. my thoughts are that steve gets around this by making the ‘purpose’ of tagging pretty explicit, and that the reason ‘why’ users might tag is initially easier for user to comprehend – thus they come with a reasonably ‘shared’ motivation.

    i’m itching to read the real world results where the shared motivations may be less strong compared to on the site itself.

    with natural history collections i think some of the complexities over tagging large groupings of objects (say a tray of butterfly specimens) as a single ‘object’ will add a layer of complexity that hasn’t yet been examined. we’re seeing this in our own social history collection for object groupings like this and this.